Better to Split Infinitives than Hairs

Hopefully you can see the merits of this blog post, irregardless of your feelings about what it’s comprised of. How irritating did you find that sentence? How many mistakes did you see? I bet it was four. More importantly, did you understand the sentiment behind the words? Would you have enjoyed reading the sentence more if it said: “It has to be hoped that the merits of this piece are apparent, despite any misgivings with regards to its composition?” This is the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism in editing and writing. Maintaining the attitude of a descriptivist when editing, particularly for fiction and memoir, is crucial to preserving an author’s voice.

Prescriptivism, as you may have already guessed, is the tendency toward rigidly following the rules of grammar—writing as it is prescribed and presumably as taught in schools. (As the Dalai Lama said, “Know the rules well so you can break them effectively.”) Descriptivism, however, is more concerned with the fluid and ever-changing nature of language. To the descriptivist, the moment a new word is created and used it is a proper and acceptable part of the language. Even the Oxford English Dictionary (a medium one would assume to be staunchly prescriptivist) chose the “crying laughing emoji” as its word of the year for 2015, as emoji are now solidly in the realm of widely used language. That is not to say that emoji would or even should be considered a normal part of literature. (Though some sites have reduced classic works to a few hundred emoji, and the stories are still remarkably understandable, though obviously somewhat lacking in nuance.) And while language as casual and grammatically unsound as the first sentence you read here should never make its way into academic papers, there is little reason for an editor to cut that sentence to shreds if they were to read it in a manuscript.

If a sentence like that were presented as dialogue, the descriptivist editor would strive to maintain as much of the original language as possible while a prescriptivist would aim only for perfection, even if it changes the tone of the speaker. Who are you to say how a character should speak, how a narrator should think? Writing can and should feel natural, like the author is having a conversation with their readers. The more an editor changes the author’s words unnecessarily, the more of a divide the editor creates between the writer and the reader. An editor’s purpose is to facilitate the transfer of an author’s ideas and language to an audience, not to strip it of personality for consumption. Authors like Mark Z. Danielewski are prime examples of how evolving language elevates a novel, and his trademark style would not be conducive to prescriptivist editing styles. Stuffy, rigid prose has its place in literature, and true mistakes or ambiguity ought to be corrected, but your average book needs to be accessible, inviting, and edited descriptively. As long as y’all understand the sentence as written, it’s okay if it ain’t perfect. See?

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